This is another extract from a recent talk on Early Jewish mysticism. This particlar extract is based on Chapter 6 of “The Ancient Jewish Mysticism” by Joseph Dan.
The story (in Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b, Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 2:1) speaks of the four rabbis who entered PARDES (Persian for Orchard). The story is about the heavenly ascent of four leading Rabbis and their fates. Rabbi Akiva ascended, descended and survived. Ben Azzai looked and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Acher (previously known as Elisha Ben Abuya looked and became a heretic.
Harm Caused by Angelic Songs
Let's look at an example of a warning in Hekhalot Rabbati (Greater Palaces):
“The bearers of His glory – the Cherubs and Ofanim and the Holy Hayot – sing before Him in six voices, each voice better than the other and different from the one preceding it. With the first voice – whoever hears it immediately becomes insane. With the second voice – whoever hears it immediately becomes lost and never returns. With the third voice – whoever hears it is seized by convulsions and dies immediately. With the fourth voice – whoever hears it his skull is broken immediately and most of his ribs uprooted. With the fifth voice – whoever hears it is immediately spilled like a flagon, and turns entirely into blood. With the sixth voice – whoever hears it is immediatelyseized by a stabbing in the heart; his heart makes a noise and turns his bowels upside down, turning his innards in to water, as it states “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts,” etc. Rabbi Ishmael said: “All these songs are heard by Rabbi Akiva when he descended to the Chariot and he seized and learned them before the Throne of Glory, where His servants would sing to Him” (Schafer 'Synopse Zur Hekhalot', sections 103-104)”This is linked to the Talmud story about the Pardes in the following way (according to Joseph Dan):
- Rabbi Akiva went in and came out unharmed, he was able to incorporate his experiences both physciall and mentally.
- Ben Zoma looked and went mad→ this is reference to "With the first voice – whoever hears it immediately becomes insane". He was unable to mentally reconcile what he had experienced and the psychic shock left him mentally unbalanced.
- Acher looked and became a heretic → this is reference to "With the second voice – whoever hears it immediately becomes lost and never returns". He was also unable to reconcile his experiences came to the conclusion that there were two Powers, that the angel Metatron and God were of equal standing.
- Ben Azzai looked and died → this in reference to "With the third voice – whoever hears it is seized by convulsions and dies immediately." He was unable to reconcile his experiences either physically or mentally. Although he had achieved a phenomenal level, he died without having a family of his own and some comment that he did not have enough of a reason to return from his Heavenly ascent back down to Earth. This is one of the reasons why some Jewish mystics make an oath that they will return.